How can public policy help combat sectarianism? Part 3/3

05 August 2019 - by Anna Mercer

In the final part of our three-part series from Anna Mercer’s contribution to the 2019 MacGill Summer School, she explores the role of rights based legislation in supporting institutional and policy reform.

With the political and government frameworks underpinned by legislation as discussed in two previous articles, the third consideration is how a Bill of Rights could provide a minimum standard or baseline for citizens, as well as to kick start the behavioural change that is required to address sectarianism, along with some of the other “isms” that continue to pervade our society.

A Bill of Rights remains outstanding from the Good Friday Agreement, and is something that many have campaigned for, with the NI Human Rights Commission endowed with statutory instruction, conducting extensive engagement on the matter.

It is important to make mention of our robust Section 75 legislation which put equality of opportunity and good relations at the heart of policy making, laying the foundations necessary for locking down equality across the community.

But the next step is the development of a suite of legislation that builds on the equalities that are now embedded in society, which actively promote integration.

Sceptics might question the power of legislation in changing hearts and minds, but I would point to the Plastic Bag Levy in Northern Ireland as testament to the simple, effective and radical impact that it can have on behaviour and in addressing long-term policy challenges; in this instance, reducing our use of plastic bags.

The levy has generated £19 million since it was introduced in 2013, which has been used to protect and enhance the environment, taking around one billion plastic bags out of the system, and critically, made most of us reuse our plastic bags.

But the point is that this legislation, albeit incentive (or disincentive) based, has changed behaviour at a grassroots level in a short space of time and this approach merits consideration.

In terms of social change, we need only look to the game-changing impact which equal marriage legislation has had here in the Republic and which has dealt with what had been a politically charged issue.

Whilst it has transformed the lives of those who have been able to invoke the legislation and get married, the heavens have not fallen in as some detractors might have suggested. And so one might consider that once rights are enshrined in law, they become less politically contentious as a settled issue.

Key to unlocking the initial challenges of this issue was the role the Citizens Assembly played in broadening the conversation, and giving more power to the voice of ordinary citizens. Whilst its composition mirrored that of society, freedom from political labels and party structures enabled a much more authentic decision-making process which gave participants space to think and to change their minds based on evidence and facts, and not on politics.

This model can be used not only in respect of institutional reform and developing a new framework, but could help unlock controversial issues that our politicians have struggled to deal with. However, interestingly, some of these may already be put to bed through the recent amendments to the Northern Ireland Executive Formation Bill, which secured majority backing to legislate on issues including same-sex marriage and abortion.

The political fall-out from this has seen the DUP and Sinn Féin swap allegiances, with the abstentionist Sinn Féin welcoming the political interference from Westminster which the DUP have objected to due to the issues it deals with. And whilst it remains to be seen as to how this will play out long-term, it may be the case that even the DUP, privately, are relieved to have these controversial issues removed from their in-tray.  Indeed the DUP may have pulled the ultimate political manoeuvre here, having privately accepted that equal marriage would come about as a result of them not having the necessary numbers, but ensuring that Sinn Féin couldn’t take the credit for its delivery.

With the current indirect direct rule that is in place ultimately unsustainable due to the legal clause that will require the Secretary of State to call an election by January if not October, as well as a Judicial Review hanging over her head lodged by victims and survivors of institutional abuse, the learning from this could stand a Citizens Assembly model in good stead.

But in any event, key to making this effective is ensuring that as is the case in the Republic that it is put on a statutory footing to give it the authority required to deliver its objective.


I started out by talking about how we often refer to sectarianism as being institutionalised, and I return to the point that it is the very institutions that can unlock this problem through affirmative action and deliberate changes to our structures and systems.

In order to accompany the structural and institutional change, we need to take a different approach to how we develop policy, and the package of measures which I propose should be taken as a whole rather than as optional add-ons. Without a whole-systems approach to reform, which includes policy as well as government, we deny ourselves the best opportunity of properly dealing with the problem, and experience to date in addressing this issue shows that sectarianism isn’t going anywhere fast.

My challenge to the politicians in doing this is not to take the quid-pro-quo approach that has characterised the St Andrew’s Agreement, and all those that have followed in its wake, but to agree a platform that can sustain the turbulence of governing, and that accommodates - but doesn’t prioritise - our constitutional positions in areas that serve to perpetuate sectarian attitudes.

This needs legislation, and it needs political bravery and ambition. But perhaps the new world order emerging around us presents the opportunity, and the need, to do things differently.